India's Hindu nationalists tipped to win as poll looms

India's Hindu nationalists tipped to win as poll looms
Indian pedestrians walk in front of a recently issued election poster featuring images of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat Narendra Modi (R) and former Indian Prime Minister and Senior BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee (L) in New Delhi

NEW DELHI - Indian politicians hit the campaign trail for a final day Saturday before the start of a marathon nine-phase election, expected to vault the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition to power.

Newspapers carried full front-page ads with a photograph of Narendra Modi, the fiery prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carrying the party's slogan: "Time for a Change, Time for Modi." Politicians had their last chance to woo voters Saturday with the next day being an official campaign break before the first stage of voting kicks off in the far-flung northeast on Monday.

It winds up six weeks later in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, home to the Taj Mahal.

Indian opinion polls, while notoriously unreliable, point to a strong win by Modi, 63, a tea-stall owner's son and a charismatic politician with a booming voice, who has said only he can revive the country's once red-hot economy.

Modi, elected three times as chief minister of the prosperous western state of Gujarat, has been rapidly increasing his hold on the BJP's national apparatus, sidelining the party's old guard.

Modi's centralisation of power has led prominent historian Ramachandran Guha to fret about what he called the politician's tendency to "self-aggrandise", a trait he said was "not entirely becoming in a prospective prime minister".

Modi is also seen as divisive because of his hardline Hindu politics in a country where 13 per cent of the 1.2 billion population is Muslim.

Now, however, the only question appears to be the size of the BJP's victory over the scandal-tainted ruling Congress at the end of the nine-round ballot - in which over 800 million can vote, making it the world's largest democratic exercise.

Congress under pressure

A survey by TV channel NDTV gave the BJP 259 seats. Congress, led in the campaign by Rahul Gandhi, 43, whose diffidence about taking up his inheritance as scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty has won him the nickname of the "reluctant prince", was seen grabbing just 123 seats.

The winning party needs 272 seats for a majority but with alliances, the BJP is expected to reach that number when results come in on May 16.

The secular left-leaning Congress, which has led India for a decade and whose last term was marked by a sharply slowing economy and massive corruption scandals, won backing Friday from the imam of India's largest mosque, Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who said "secularism is the need of the hour".

Modi, a bachelor who likes to be seen as a "monk with a mission" according to his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, is supported by many business leaders who admire what they say is his corporate-friendly administration of Gujarat.

But critics are worried about his Hindu nationalist rhetoric, fearing it could stoke religious tensions, and recall the 2002 riots that swept Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were hacked, burnt and shot to death.

BJP spokeswoman Nirmal Sitharaman dismissed as "patronising" and "lacking objectivity" an editorial by weekly newspaper The Economist that said it "would be a wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India".

The bearded, barrel-chested Modi has repeatedly rejected opponents' accusations he did not act decisively to halt the riots and may have even spurred them and official investigations have never found strong enough grounds to charge him.

Italian-born Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who led the party to victory in 2004 and 2009, declared in her last big pre-election appearance Modi was promising "magically to transform the country overnight".

"How has it come to the state that one has to tell the most lies to become prime minister of this great country?" Gandhi asked at a thinly attended rally Friday.

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